Herding Cash Cows

New Drug Test Stats from Quest Diagnostics

A few weeks ago Quest Diagnostics released its annual Drug Testing Index, the 30th Anniversary edition, so let us begin with Congratulations to those devils with a dipstick from the loyal opposition! We can’t wait to dance on your grave.

.Since 1988 the Index (as it is often called) has provided a wealth of information on employee drug testing and drug use profiling. Some of its info is accurate and quite useful; some of it is self-serving, as you would expect from any corporate statement; and some of it is just plain bullshit, especially with regard to marijuana. Reading between the lines of the Spring 2018 edition, one gets the distinct impression that the drug test industry is going a little cray-cray about the increasing medicalization and legalizing of cannabis. With its extended detection window and extraordinary prevalence cannabis has long been the cash cow of professional drug testing. On one hand, its increasing popularity is being touted by drug test providers as the next good reason for employers to increase an existing workplace drug test program; on the other hand, those same providers are scared shitless that its widespread acceptance of cannabis will cause employers to back away from testing for weed and concentrate more on the less-popular, less profitable drugs like opiates, cocaine and meth. The folks at Quest are afraid that the cow might wander off the farm and never come back. Their concerns are justified.

On the day Quest released its Anniversary Index, Caesar’s in Las Vegas announced that it would no longer screen job applicants for marijuana use as a condition of employment. “We felt we might be missing some good candidates because of the marijuana issue,” said Rich Broome, executive vice president of corporate communications for Caesar’s,  “We felt that pre-screening for marijuana was on the whole, counterproductive.”

That sounds like a good bet.

The new Quest Drug Testing Index had some surprising numbers for those other drugs as well: positives for cocaine climbed by double digits in some areas while positive results for meth-amphetamines seems to have skyrocketed over the last four years. Surprisingly, the positivity rates for opiates in the general workforce in urine testing declined by an overall 17 percent from the previous year. That sounds like good news (and it is), but before we fire up that celebratory blunt and declare the opioid crisis over, there are few things yet to consider.

Testing for prescription opiates within the federally mandated, safety-sensitive workforce was not required until the beginning of this year. Before that, opiate panels typically checked for morphine, codeine and heroin, and synthetic opioids like the new Big Bad, fentanyl, were not included at all. In January, new regulations from the Fed added four new panels for prescription opioids and fentanyl; and those results will start to show up in next year’s Index.

Also, the Index limits its gaze to workforce drug testing – which is Quest’s proper mandate – but that view does not include an estimated one million Americans who are effectively sidelined from the workforce due to opioid addiction.

The Center for Disease Control (CDC) states that the rate of prescriptions for opioids has dropped to its lowest mark in over ten years so it sounds like the doctors are finally spooked (and that’s good news too). Certainly it looks as if there was a decent decline in prescription opioid use in 2017, but just as surely the numbers are skewed. Next years Index should be revealing.

Finally, these figures are best understood in a larger context where more Americans died from drug overdoses in 2016 than from gun violence and car crashes combined.  Among those unfortunate souls 80 percent died directly from opiates and 20 percent died from all the rest – from the coke, the speed, and the dangerous plethora of prescription drugs. But none died from weed. Not one. Not ever. In the history of mankind no one has ever died directly from cannabis. Don’t believe the hype. Long before cannabis will kill you, it will put you to sleep. Pleasantly.

Still, that pesky Index reports that positive tests for cannabis rose markedly in urine testing over the last several years and were “most striking in states that have enacted recreational use statues since 2016.”  A four percent jump in the general workforce and an almost eight-percent increase among the more-regulated, safety-conscious Feds were enough to furrow the brows at Quest. “Our data suggests that the recreational use of marijuana is spilling into the workforce, including among individuals most responsible for keeping our communities safe,” cautioned Dr. Barry Sample, director of science and technology for employer solutions at Quest. He is concerned that there might be a “correlation” between marijuana legalization and “increased workforce drug use.”

From your lips to God’s Ears, Barry. I suspect it’s a lot like herding cows.